The only thing standing between us and success were two grizzly old drunks in line in front of us at the store. My partner in crime took the time we spent waiting to reason with me. We should get two chocolates, she said, in case we couldn’t come to the store again later. We should get two of them so she could give one to her sister. And we had to hurry, she said, before mama finds us.
I told her I only had two dollars. I took one out of my billfold and gave it to her.
The first old drunk finally decided on his cigarettes and the line moved up one. I looked down at my partner and her belly still stuck out from under her dirty pink shirt. Her feet were dirty, too, and her hair needed combing. She held her chocolate in both hands, looking up at me smiling and trembling with excitement. “It’s gonna be good,” she said.
I turned back around and the old bearded drunk in front of me was holding a dollar bill inches from my face. “Here,” he said. “So she can get her sister one, too.”
I felt insulted and wanted to tell him that I had more money in my pocket, but I took the dollar so he’d stop dangling it in front of me. I gave it to my girl, told her to tell him thank you and go get another chocolate. She told him thanks and I watched her run barefoot and happy back down the candy aisle.
The old drunk was smiling when I turned back toward him. “I like little kids,” he said. His buddy was standing at the door laughing at him, telling him to hurry up. That old drunk waved bye and he went out the door with his friend. We got our chocolate and went back home.
The funny thing is it was that very day I was supposed to start writing this story. The very story you’re reading now. It was supposed to be about the face of poverty in Chattanooga. It was going to be a very solemn and sad story, a story that profiled people struggling to buy food and clothes for their children. People who didn’t see the end of November as the beginning of the holidays but as the beginning of a hard, cold season that could hurt them. And there I was feeling like a comical caricature in my own story. My trouble didn’t end there.
A few days before I’d gone down to see the Occupiers on the courthouse lawn to do a little research, to ask them personally what all the fuss was about, why they were doing what they were doing and to put a timely, politically serious spin on this story. It didn’t work out that way.
It was just after dark when I got to the courthouse. A group of four or five Occupiers sat near the sidewalk holding up posterboard signs with slogans. Sometimes cars honked at them as they drove by and when they did, those four or five people cheered.
Flowers were planted in very neat rows in the courthouse yard behind them. From the courthouse steps, where so many foreclosed homes had been auctioned off, Georgia Avenue’s churchless steeple could be seen, lit up by electric lights and pointing up to the heavens. A great big American flag hung loosely on a pole.
I approached a young man who was standing alone under one of the old trees. He wore smart glasses and was eating soup from a Styrofoam bowl. “It’s a beautiful night for a protest,” I said. He looked up at me over the corner of his bowl, unamused. I told him I was working on a story about poverty in Chattanooga and asked if he’d talk to me about the nature of the Occupy movement and what the Chattanooga group was hoping to achieve.